Regan: Two-Way Monologue

An Austrian poet sheds light on how to reform course evaluations.

by Joseph Regan | 3/30/18 12:15am

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote poetry as if it were life or death, and for him it was. He was a sickly man who wrote poetry of astounding power, but one of his ideas has particular relevance to life at Dartmouth.

In 1902 in Berlin, 19-year-old Franz Kappus wrote Rilke a letter that started a six-year correspondence. Kappus was about to join the Austro-Hungarian military, but felt inclined to be a poet. In his first reply to Kappus, Rilke says, “Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself.”

These are the beliefs of a poet the editors of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet describe as “not only the greatest German poet of the past hundred years but also a towering influence on twentieth century poetry in every Western language.”

Rilke’s belief in the solitary artist led him to label journalists and critics “semi-artistic professions which, while they make show of a relatedness to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art...” It is likely that Rilke would consider the role of professors to be much the same. Rilke calls the events and things that art seeks to evoke “unutterable” — a strange choice of words for a poet. Because he champions the purity of the pursuit of “art,” these “semi-artistic” professions would never qualify.

But the importance of criticism is that it is capable of improving and enlightening when it is expressed in earnest. Criticism is evaluation with an eye to improvement. Rilke certainly criticized himself in the process of revising his artfully crafted letters, just as he certainly revised his poetry. What criticism does, whether self-imposed or from another, art does too by showing people how they feel. So does teaching, which is criticized by Dartmouth students at the end of each term through through course evaluations.

Dartmouth will be full of students and professors long after those here now are gone. If teaching is an art, which I think it is, then criticizing it is worthless to a person of Rilke’s mind. Yet to paraphrase the poet: the lives of works of art endure by the side of individuals that pass away. Dartmouth certainly endures; teaching is a performance and studying is identical in kind, if not in subject matter, to the process a poet must go through to produce poetry. Rilke, in writing these many letters to Kappus, was essentially taking the role of a critic. Rather than contradict Rilke and invalidate his contribution to literature, I think it is valuable to consider how course evaluations, which occur only once, could be modeled on this correspondence to improve the experience of professors and students in the classroom.

The first problem with course evaluations is their singularity; the second is their reception. If an activity, PowerPoint slide or assignment fails to be as effective as it was intended, that should be noted immediately. Students should be just as responsible as professors, and both are accountable for communicating productively.

Course evaluations are two-way monologues that should become ongoing dialogues. The first monologue is usually aired the first week, when the professor justifies their decisions by explaining the syllabus. The second monologue consists of course evaluations, which are usually hurried through in order to reveal grades. Throughout the term, there is little opportunity for genuine feedback.

Terms at Dartmouth are frenetic. It would be difficult to find a way to introduce a systemic evaluation of courses that did not overly intrude on the learning experience. However, the solution starts with changing the perception of course evaluations. Sometimes a course will begin with a discussion of how to effectively organize the class. This happens most often in seminars, when it is far easier to be quietly displeased than it is to actively express that displeasure.

Office hours are a potential answer. There, the students carry the burden. Another answer is a classroom culture that encourages students to engage with their education by thinking about it as it happens, not after the fact when it has become a little hazy behind the pell-mell sprint of finals period. Rilke’s last published letter to Kappus extolled the virtue of “positively [training] an independent alertness.” Everyone would benefit from trying to be independently alert, artist or not.

“Letters to a Young Poet” does not contain Franz Kappus’ letters. Rilke’s powerful replies, stunning from a man not much older than myself at the time, go unanswered. However, students are much like Kappus during the years of their correspondence, growing into themselves. Academics are a major outlet for that self-growth. Classes are a common topic of conversation on campus, and there should be a way to include educators in this conversation.